Recent New Zealand elections have revealed a 21st-century paradox. Election year should be a time when politicians talk with the voting public about whether the country’s current policy settings are improving wellbeing, or whether changes are needed.
Yet debate about public policy has become a sideshow in recent election years. Instead, the public arena has been dominated by scandals. Whether it was the so-called Tea tape scandal of 2011, dirty politics claims in 2014 or Metiria Turei’s self-destruction in 2017, political debate in an election year has been dominated by sideshows, by short news cycles, slogans and celebrity tittle-tattle that have no bearing on the prospects and prosperity of ordinary New Zealanders.
At the start of the third decade of the third millennium, dare we hope this year will be different? That election 2020 will be about policies, not politics?
We certainly need it. While New Zealand is doing well on many measures (freedom from corruption, ease of doing business and quality of life, to name a few), we could and should be doing much better. When once we were among the most prosperous nations on earth, we now languish in the bottom half of the OECD’s GDP-per-capita league tables.
It has become fashionable in some quarters to criticise GDP as a measure of welfare. Of course, GDP is only a proxy for wellbeing. Yet, a nation’s prosperity will determine the quality of the healthcare it can offer its populace, the resources it has available to for education (and the quality of its educational institutions, including its universities), and the opportunities its economy can provide its workforce. GDP matters.
Child poverty, housing
At a less abstract level than GDP, we face significant social, economic and environmental challenges. Among them are poverty (including child poverty, which has been steadily rising in New Zealand over the past three years), severe housing unaffordability, poor productivity growth, declining educational outcomes among school students, over-stretched transport infrastructure and a host of environmental challenges.
Fortunately, all these problems are solvable. Indeed, for most of them, solutions already exist. For example, we need an adequate and unconstrained supply of land for new homes. The housing affordability problem is not building houses but regulatory and infrastructure constraints on the availability of land for development. The government can restore housing affordability by removing this constraint – by reforming the Resource Management Act and offering better incentives to local government to consent new housing developments.
Education is the stairway to opportunity and prosperity. For children born into poverty, good schooling may be the only way out. It is a national scandal that New Zealand year-five students ranked last in the English-speaking world for reading comprehension in the latest PIRL (Progress in Reading Literacy) study. Worse still, a recent Tertiary Education Commission survey found 40% of school-leavers with NCEA Level 2 to be functionally illiterate. The low expectations of our education system are setting up our school students to fail.
Arresting the decline
New Zealand students’ literacy and numeracy has now been declining for nearly two decades. This decline must be arrested. We need better school performance measures so teachers and school boards can discover what works and what does not. Countries such as England have reversed similar declines with curriculum and pedagogical reforms. We must do likewise.
Our success in managing our offshore fisheries using tradable quota rights should be applied to similar environmental challenges such as water quality. New Zealand’s fisheries quota management system is envied around the world. Applying the same cap-and-trade approach to other environmental resources, such as our priceless waterways, will solve allocation issues in an economically efficient way and build a constituency to ensure sustainability.
With climate policy, where we already have an emissions trading scheme, there has been too little public debate about successive governments’ decisions to foreclose the use of international carbon credits to offset domestic emissions. Pushed through under urgency late last year, the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act will delay New Zealand’s achievement of net-zero emissions. It will also radically increase the costs to New Zealanders of getting to net-zero by 2050 (on some estimates, by as much as $300 billion).
More generally, we need to rethink our extremely centralist approach to decision-making. Local government and local communities face poor incentives to facilitate local economic development. To reinvigorate the regions, central government must share the tax benefits that accrue from growth with local communities.
Election years should provide the opportunity to debate these and other issues constraining New Zealanders from achieving their potential.
If we are serious about wellbeing, in 2020 we must not be distracted by sideshows. Instead, we must challenge our politicians to provide solutions to the big issues the country faces. If we do not, we will be the poorer for it.
Perhaps the real paradox is that one way or the other, we will get the politicians – and the policies – we deserve.
Roger Partridge chairs The New Zealand Initiative.